Medical Social Worker Education Requirements and Career Info

Medical social workers work with patients who must cope with chronic or terminal illness, such as Alzheimer's, cancer or AIDS. The social worker explains policies and resources, assists with hospital discharge processes, helps plan and arrange post-hospital healthcare services at home or in another facility and often acts as a patient advocate.

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Education Requirements

The usual job requirement for a medical social worker is a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. Some jobs may be available to social workers who only have a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), but these jobs are usually lower-level assistant positions.

Master's degree programs in social work usually last two years and include a practicum or an internship that may range from 400 to more than 1,400 clock hours. Even a 4-year bachelor's degree requires a practicum of 400-500 hours. During the practicum, aspiring medical social workers work under the supervision of licensed social workers to treat and counsel patients. Often medical social workers take additional coursework specific to the needs of chronically or terminally ill clients.

Certification Options

Certification is not a legal requirement for medical social workers. However, it is a voluntary professional identification that signifies social workers have had experience working with patients. It also indicates that they have met high national standards, follow a stringent code of ethics and complete continuing professional education.

The National Association of Social Workers ( www.socialworkers.org) offers three MSW credentials (generalist, entry-level and advanced clinician). It also has eight specialty certifications for MSW holders, several of which can apply to a medical social worker in specific job areas, such as health care, hospice and gerontology. There are three specialty certifications available at the bachelor's degree level: hospice, gerontology and family.

Licensing Requirements

Every state has its own standards and requirements for licensing social workers. The one thing they all have in common is that the degrees earned must be from accredited social work programs. Although most states have two licensure categories, other states regulate up to four classifications. The four groups include those who graduate with a BSW, those who have an MSW but no experience, those with an MSW plus two years of post-master's supervised experience and those with an MSW plus two years of post-master's clinical experience. The Association of Social Work Boards (www.aswb.org) has information on requirements for every state.

Career Information

Medical social workers should have compassion, empathy and patience. Among the essential skills or abilities needed are time management, organization and problem-solving. They may perform clinical assessments, take on supervisory roles, explore different ways of drawing upon social services and manage large caseloads.

Career Opportunities

Professional medical social workers may find work in a variety of healthcare environments. These environments include nursing homes and other nursing facilities, rehabilitation facilities, hospitals and hospices, employee assistance programs and local governments.

Employment Outlook

In 2008, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov) anticipated that medical and public health social work jobs would grow 22% between 2008 and 2018, which is faster than other social work jobs and the average for all occupations. The BLS stated that the growing elderly population was one reason for the increasing need for medical social workers. As a result, they predicted that social workers with experience in gerontology would have excellent opportunities for employment.

Salary Information

In May 2008, the average public health and medical social worker salary was almost $23 per hour, or $47,560 per year, according to the BLS. The agencies with the highest number of job opportunities in this field were general medical and surgical hospitals. Home healthcare services, nursing care facilities and local governments also provide employment opportunities for medical social workers.

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